How one Mississippi town rebuilds hurricane after hurricane
Residents of tiny Pearlington, often overlooked by the media and federal-aid donors, rely on grit and small-town selflessness to survive repeated natural disasters.
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Hurricane Isadore filled the house with six feet of water, but Evans was undaunted. The waters would recede; the mud could be removed. Two weeks later, hurricane Lili erased that hope, sweeping the couple’s dream home away, leaving nothing behind but a few photographs.
“I loved that home,” Evans says. “It took the wind out of my sails for a few days.”
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But he walked away and started life again, purchasing the restaurant and throwing himself into its success. “You don’t sit on your hands and cry,” he says. “You just go on.”
It’s a sentiment shared throughout the town. A stubborn faith that hard work will persevere and determination will triumph. A willingness to do whatever it takes to preserve a life residents say they’ve never found in larger cities.
Andy Collins greets the throng milling outside the restaurant, then takes his place as if he’s been here forever. He came to Pearlington three years ago and never left.
“It’s the people,” he says. “They’re a rare breed. They made me feel welcome from Day 1. We all stick together.”
Mr. Collins stayed in his trailer during Gustav before finally fleeing during the height of the storm. He shudders as he recalls watching the fetid salt water flow over the hood of his truck as he navigated his way past wind-lashed trees and floating logs to get to higher ground.
He’d just reached safety when he received a phone call – a friend in trouble, trapped in a house with his dog. He knew his truck was the only thing he’d have when the storm was over, so he left it on Highway 90 and swam to his friend’s house. He says there were times he was sure he would drown, but he kept going.
As he talks, more people arrive, and the air is filled with calls of “Ya’ll hungry?,” “Wanna Coke?,” and “Watch for snakes!” The Evanses are feeding everyone who shows up at the restaurant, just as they have after every hurricane.
Bill White arrives and three dogs rush to his truck to receive Milk-Bones he’s doling from the box he always carries with him. He’s known for taking in storm-stricken animals. Like everyone else, he shrugs it off. It’s just what you do. If you have something, you share it. If you need something, someone offers it. It’s life in Pearlington.
Glenn Locklin joins what’s starting to look like a family reunion. His shirt is off and rivers of sweat roll down his sunburned back. Mr. Locklin, a Tennessee contractor, came to help Pearlington rebuild following Katrina. Three years later, he and his team of volunteers have built 47 homes here. Seven remain, but Gustav has created new work.
He won’t be going home anytime soon. A tattoo on the fourth finger of his left hand tells the story – an inked replacement of the wedding band he sold to buy building supplies, the symbol of love he relinquished to give a tangible reminder of the devotion he’s developed for these people. “Katrina was bad, but it was one of the best things that could happen to this town,” he says. “We know now we can make it.”
We. Not they, but we. Two letters that say everything about the depth of his feeling for the town. He climbs to his feet and heads to a house he’s building. Andy Collins returns to clean his flooded trailer. Janyne Evans drags yet another garbage can out for scrubbing. Mark Evans talks to a new set of men who’ve arrived for lunch.
Work resumes. Life goes on, even as another set of hurricanes marches forward in the Gulf.